'Aha' moments in international project management

For many global companies, the promise of Asia doesn’t always match up with what is delivered. Odgers Berndtson Search Intelligence noted five major roadblocks to success in Asia for MNCs. Can you guess what tops the list of major challenges? 

That Communication, Culture and Understanding tops the list of major roadblocks, should come as no surprise.  Asia boasts many unique opportunities for European companies. But experience shows that a lack of cultural intelligence and understanding of the vastly contrasting business practices and values can become a minefield for companies running operations or managing projects there. A Swiss engineering design firm provides an interesting case study in international project management. They were plagued by misunderstandings between their Swiss-based team led by Marco and colleagues in Malaysia and Hong Kong. This caused expensive project delays and missed deadlines. Here are two typical scenarios which created cross-cultural conflict within the team and put their project at risk.

1. Task-oriented vs. relationship-oriented leadership

Swiss project manager, Marco, arrives in Kuala Lumpur with a heavily-loaded agenda. He has just a couple of days to cover all outstanding issues before flying on to Hong Kong. He reaches the KL office carrying his suitcase and a pile of folders and documents. He is jet-lagged and looking forward to an early night.

The Malaysian team welcomes him warmly with coffee and local cakes and proceeds to ask him about his trip and how his family is doing. Marco is not in the mood for pleasantries and brushes their friendly talk aside. Instead he begins to grill the team about outstanding issues regarding prototype development, documentation and progress.

Team leader, Hassan, interrupts to ask him where they should take him for dinner and entertainment that evening. Marco is not amused.

What cultural and personality traits have influenced this communication? What does Marco think about Hassan’s behaviour? How does Hassan feel about Marco’s lack of appreciation for his hospitality?

Marco’s task-centred style has collided with Hassan’s relationship-centred approach. Marco should be sensitive to the fact that he is more likely to foster a collaborative attitude if he adopts a more personal approach. He needs to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of a team that he will be in contact with mostly on a virtual basis. Perhaps he should have allowed more time for his visit before rushing off to Hong Kong for his next meeting.

Hassan, on the other hand, should try to understand Marco’s need for facts and figures given impending deadlines for project milestones. If he can assuage Marco’s concerns for immediate updates, it might put Marco in a more relaxed mood and make him more open to small talk and discussions about the evening programme they have so carefully planned for him. He wants to be the perfect host and make Marco feel at home and taken care of.

2. High-context vs. low-context communication

Chow has been working on a report to deliver key data that will impact the next phase of the project. However due to technical delays on the project and downtime with the IT server, he will not be able to hand Marco the report before he leaves for Hong Kong.

Being a high-context (relying on mutual understanding rather than explicit messages) and indirect communicator, he doesn’t warn Marco about the problem and simply lets Marco think that the report will be finished on time.

If Marco had done his intercultural homework he would know to ask more open questions to ascertain if he will get the report on time:

“Can you tell me how far along you are with this report?” or

“What obstacles might prevent you from having the report ready for me before I leave?”

Instead Marco asked Chow in his typical low-context (words convey precise meaning), straightforward way:

“Is the report ready?” to which Chow replied in his typical high-context style:

“The server has been down all day. As soon as it is up again, I’m sure you can have the report in time. “

Both parties felt the communication had been clear: Marco understood that the report would be completed on time. Chow on the other hand, was sure that he had made it clear to Marco that due to server downtime, the report would not be completed in time before Marco left for Hong Kong. Both Marco and Chow need to understand the aspects of their communication style which are strongly impacted by culture. Marco needs to be careful not to judge Chow as being unreliable and Chow needs to be careful not to see Marco as rude or inconsiderate.

These situations have become more common as leaders around the globe find themselves managing or interacting with people from different cultures. This particular company recognised the importance of strong team leadership and the need for greater understanding of differing cultural values, mindsets and business behaviours. Intercultural training was a first step towards adapting attitudes, behaviour and communication styles within the team. 

Whether it’s managing virtual teams with members from Bangkok, Barcelona and Boston; negotiating sales contracts between Europe and Asia; or expanding business operations into new regions, leaders increasingly need a high level of cultural intelligence to perform effectively in their jobs.

How will your company level the playing field in Asia?

Christina Image


Before becoming an intercultural trainer Christina worked for three different large multi-national companies in the oil and gas, energy insurance and building industries and has a broad multicultural exposure to life on three continents. Born and raised in Malayasia, she is now based in Zurich, Switzerland.

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